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01 July 2014

Rebalancing Act

If the move of key parts of the BBC from London to Salford is to mean anything it must be to nurture for the long term a new centre for broadcasting talent outside London.

Today's changes to the Radio 5 Live schedule are part of that. Sad though it may be for the network to lose broadcasters of the ability and stature of Victoria Derbyshire and Richard Bacon, neither of them could be regarded as staunch advocates of the northern project.

For as long as the talent refused to buy in the niggling, whinging arguments about the vital concept of making the BBC relevant to the whole of England would chunter on - whilst the Daily Mail (and other enemies of the Corporation) could gleefully make mischief on a regular basis analysing Ms Derbyshire's travel expenses.

Today has, hopefully, brought an end to that bloodsport - at least so far as radio goes - from October.

I was part of the BBC's  'Project North' from mid-2005 onwards.

The partnership, established with vocational trainers in the region, aimed to ensure that when key departments, including Sport and Children's programming as well as 5 Live, left London any skills gaps could be filled with diverse talent drawn primarily from the north.

We as training providers were told that up to a hundred BJ (Broadcast Journalist) level roles could need filling by 2010 as staff then filling those jobs in the capital chose not to relocate to Salford.

I can empathise with the pressures on those concerned.

Broadcast news, certainly in entry level positions, is dominated by the young, single and mobile. One of the benefits of 'making it' to the BBC, especially in a network role, is the opportunity for something closer to a normal family life. That means partners with jobs, kids at school, and networks of social contacts.

I would certainly never want to relocate south for those very reasons, although some of the concerns expressed by staff facing the trip north suggested other more base, ignorant and prejudiced concerns ... "Are there any restaurants in Manchester?" was one unforgettable gem from an internal staff  down-the-line dialogue I witnessed with incredulity during the transition period.

Some would stay and some would go. The northern training providers, together with parallel initiatives to attract applicants to senior roles, would ensure any skills gaps were filled.

There was even a special jobs database website to capture expressions of interest from a new, diverse tranche of talent previously excluded or deterred from a London-centric BBC career - whatever happened to that?

All was going smoothly. Then came the recession.

Those thinking of leaving a secure job for the challenges of freelancing, or a spell living on a partner's earnings, understandably chose instead to hang on to what they had. Even the frozen north was better than penury. They moved with resentment, relocated under sufferance.

I'm delighted so many of my Leeds Trinity alumni have found roles in Salford. It's nice to chat in Costa Coffee in the Media City complex when I'm over for a meeting. I get the gossip. And one theme repeated, often and across the board, even now, is the number of people still wanting to go back down south.

The malcontents took comfort from the high-profile names, including Bacon and Derbyshire, in the same predicament as them.

BBC North could never be a truly settled operation with that kind of vibe. So, in the best possible way, I'm pleased to see the stars go.

With the role models departed, and the economy picking up to the point of overheating in the south, hopefully any remaining exiles will also pack their bags, find a new life where they belong and make way for a generation of diverse talent committed to giving the north of England a voice in national broadcasting.

Never forget that when this process started nearly a decade ago, three-quarters of BBC staff had a family 'home' address in London or the South East. That's an obscene statistic in a supposedly national broadcaster.

The changes at 5 Live, painful though they may be for the individuals concerned, can only help towards consolidating Salford as the new focus of creative talent to counterbalance the dominance of London.

It shouldn't be too painful for Richard, anyway. He's got a gig on daytime telly. With Una Stubbs.

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